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  • Renee Kashuba

Back to basics

I read an opinion piece in CNN a few days ago, and it struck a chord with me, because it really highlights a lot of what's on my mind these days: The US food system is killing Americans. The title says it all, but I really recommend you take a moment to read it fully. Part of the argument is that the problems with our food system, resulting in deteriorating health for many Americans and particularly for poor Americans, are now -- during the pandemic -- potentially increasing death from the novel coronavirus. Our poor diets are leading to poor health, which makes us more vulnerable to severe complications and death from COVID-19. This is a valid point, and, of course, a nice tie in to our current obsessions. Hopefully, this will grab attention and the magnitude of the impending danger will help folks sit up and take real notice of the relationship between food and health. We typically think of this relationship as one of prolonged and delayed consequences, allowing us to put off the salad we should eat today until tomorrow. But this connection reveals that the diet-health interaction can be much more acute.

The danger of this messaging may be that readers take it to the next extreme, and I've read plenty of other pieces masquerading as "news" in the Apple News Feed (what about an ad is news here, people?), touting the benefit of supplements, etc, to boost your immune system and help fight the coronavirus. This is not what I'm referring to, and it's not what the authors of this opinion piece are saying at all. Rather, there is a real, and potentially immediate, consequence to providing food in the way we do in this country.

I've been thinking about our food supply chain a lot these days. In the onslaught of the virus and mobility restrictions, the problems with our supply chain were immediate and evident. There was a seemingly unique combination of scarcity and abundant waste. As the crisis wore on, I began to think of it more in terms of food scarcity -- which the authors differentiate from nutrition scarcity -- another valid point. We cannot simply provide food, we have to look at what food we provide. As I was working with the local food pantry to provide fresh, nutritious soup and bread, I started to consider how we provide food for those in need.

First, it struck me that people who really deserved a public benefit were instead being fed by local charities, which sources food from a regional charity that was funded in part by the government. The pantry and other local charities also provided clients with gift cards to a local shopping market. In both cases, there are a lot of steps and entities involved, and, in the case of the gift cards, the local market (which does offer a very small discount on the cards) actually benefits, because the families must shop at their store to use the card. Offering a discount on the card amounts to just offering a small sale, a very common practice to boost revenue and generally considered advertising and marketing, not a donation. In fact, since the pandemic began, I've been regularly approached -- once even with a rather in-depth phone pitch -- to begin offering gift cards to save my business's bottom line in this new world.

Second, I looked at the food provided. The pantry distributed packaged goods, which were a combination of branded goods, often processed, bought at retail cost in small sizes for easy distribution and of bulk-sized dry goods that could not be distributed because of their size and weight (the pantry had to find other ways to use these and sometimes they ended up in my soup). The more I thought about it, the crazier it seemed. Why would someone want a small box of mac-n-cheese, when they can make a better, more nutritious meal out of a larger quantity of plain ingredients that cost the same? Why do health department regulations prevent you from buying 50 pounds of flour and distributing that just like bulk good stores do? These policies and practices ensure that branded, packaged food essentially gets a cut from providing food for the poor, and individual donors are funding it.

Finally, I started to think about how I could help more. I talked to several people about providing food, either working with existing charities, or by forming my own. I was hoping to disrupt the supply chain for the needy, and work directly with local farmers and wholesale distributors to provide the most bang for the buck. Surprisingly, I heard from some people that there was no unmet need in my area. But every week when I dropped off soup at the pantry, the line formed long before the pantry opened, and volunteers would often text me half-way through distribution to ask if there were any more. Clearly, there was as disconnect. And it seems to me that the disconnect keeps the system working exactly as it is -- with the needy dependent on the gifts of locals with money and a lot of people along the way profiting or taking their share for administrative costs, but not any more money going to local farms and not enough fresh, unprocessed food going to the hungry. (Thankfully, New York State has a program to finance pantries purchasing produce directly from local farms, and we can hope that becomes permanent.)

In the end, I've completed my tenure making fresh soup and bread for the pantry, but I'm continuing to subvert the system in a very small, very local way. I'll continue to get bulk goods at wholesale prices for the pantry and repackage them by hand to make them easy to distribute and stretch the pantry dollar. This also means that we can offer relatively unprocessed ingredients, instead of mixes that are high in salt and preservatives. The health of the country very well may depend on our ability to do much more than just this.

This week's recipe

Last week, I transitioned my business from a commercial kitchen to a home-based baking and private chef venture. Already, I've started returning to my roots as a Chef. For the past few years, I've been pushed toward reproducibility, as clients repeatedly ordered what they'd had before at their own event or someone else's, because they just loved it and wanted it again. It's always great when folks love what you cook, and it's wonderful to be able to say something is a crowd favorite. But before I fed such large crowds, I did a lot more experimenting. I'm hoping to return to this more. The last dishes I made in the kitchen were wonderful and delicious modifications of some crowd favorites. And here's one for you!

Salted Caramel Brownie

Cross between a brownie and a blondie, with a lighter chocolate taste, airier texture, and salty goodness.

1 1/4 cup butter, melted

2 cups best dark chocolate chips, melted

1 Tb vanilla

1 1/2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp of baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

3 cups flour

1 Tb molasses

3 eggs

1 Tb vanilla

Melt butter, and add chips, heating lightly and stirring until fully melted. Stir together dry ingredients. Stir in melted butter and chocolate. Add molasses, eggs, and vanilla and blend completely. (Make sure you break up the eggs nicely -- I don't beat ahead of time, because I don't want it to get fluffy, and I also feel it's a waste of time and a bowl. I'm a pretty lazy cook.) Spread in a well-buttered pan (I use a 1/2 sheet size, which is about the size of a large jelly roll pan). Bake at 350 until set completely and edges begin to brown a bit. Do not overtake (it will get hard and brittle).

In my next improvement, I'm going to try drizzling it with caramel sauce before baking -- I'll let you know how it goes!

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